• Online classes have exposed more children to a high risk of online violence
• Currently, six in every 10 girls has experienced some form of abuse online
Since she was 13, Bella* (not her real name) has been battling self-esteem issues.
Her classmates were always prettier and curvier than her, at least in her opinion. Every time her school attended the music festivals, she did not get the attention the other girls were getting from their male counterparts that she had always envisioned hooking up with.
“Everyone was talking about how a cute guy asked for their phone number and how they would meet during the weekends,” she says.
“For me, it was a different story. No boy ever said hi, and that was where my journey towards getting violated online commenced.”
Bella, who is a day scholar at a secondary school in Nairobi, is currently 16 years old, and it is the first time she has gathered energy to narrate what she went through a year ago.
“I opted to use a dating site to get a boyfriend to counter what I felt inside. It seemed like an easier place to deal with my esteem issues,” she says.
Unfortunately, that was the place she met her persecutor. As she sought to hook up with a cute and muscular guy in October last year, Bella turned down a request from a random guy she felt was not her type.
“That was where this man, Jon, started insulting me. He called me fat, shapeless and ugly for not accepting to hook up with him,” she says.
Later on, to her dismay, Jon moved to her Facebook and Instagram account, threatening he would Photoshop her decent images into nudes if they did not meet up.
She ignored him, hoping Jon would disappear into thin air and leave her in peace, but that was not to be.
“First of all, I have no idea how he got a hold of my social media accounts. The situation got worse and he actually photo shopped my images, posted them and tagged my family and friends using a pseudo account,” Bella recalls.
Not knowing what to do and where to report then, she shrunk into a lonely corner and shut out the world around her. She also skipped school and church for weeks.
“My mother believed I had been selling my body and that finally, somebody had exposed me. It was all blamed on me and my lack of morals,” she says in a melancholic tone.
For young Bella, that period in her life was a bad dream that she hoped to one day wake up from. Her world was dark and no one seemed to understand that she was being harassed online for turning down a hook-up request.
She is just one of the six in every 10 girls that have experienced violence online.
My mother believed I was selling my body and finally, somebody had exposed me. It was all blamed on me and my lack of moralsBella*
The story is, however, different for Marl*, a gender activist at 17 years. Anytime she posts something about gender equality, she receives insults.
“The moment a post touches on gender equality, I have had people call me names. Some comments include ‘all the time posting’, ‘you are just a small girl with no knowledge about life’ or even ‘get a man to have sex with,” she says.
Saying she posts what she believes in and in the hope of educating the masses, Marl adds that those comments are mostly from men.
“There are times I have even posted simple, beautiful images that I get harassed for in the end,” she says.
In several instances, Marl admits to have posted images in which she is in a body hugging dress but gets objectified from them.
“The moment I get many people commenting that I have posted a beautiful picture, some people are usually like ‘you are selling yourself’, ‘are you advertising yourself for a man?’ or ‘prostitute, you are selling yourself on social media’,” she says angered.
For months now, Angie*, a university student, has had people using her photos as their profile pictures on social media for their accounts and pseudo accounts.
“I do not really understand what happens sometimes. I have people using my photos in all the wrong ways without my permission,” she says.
The engineering student in a local university has gotten several calls from friends, asking why she has been posting insensitive content.
“I have no idea how somebody decides to use my images and even send requests to my friends so as to paint me in bad light,” Angie says.
Once, she tried reaching out to a guy who was using her image as his Facebook profile picture, and all he said was, “It is because you are beautiful.”
“For me, that is not a compliment, it is harassing me and breaching my privacy. Simply because I am female, somebody can use my image to attract online friends,” she says.
She adds that male harassers display more aggressive behaviour towards women after they feel a girl has rejected or turned them down in a certain way.
WHY THEY THRIVE
The introduction of online classes for minors and learners in institutions of higher learning during Covid-19 has exposed more girls to a high risk of online violence.
Further, movement restrictions amid the high ownership of smartphones, tablet and laptop ownership across the globe is swelling the number of girls who can be targeted, according to a new report by Plan International.
“Girls are spending more time than ever at home and on the Internet. Key societal functions are being moved online to prevent the spread of the virus, and it is more vital than ever that girls enjoy full and equal access to opportunities social media and the web have to offer,” the report says.
Titled 'The state of the girl 2020’, the report adds that online abuse against girls happened mostly on Facebook at 39 per cent, followed by Instagram at 23 per cent.
The new populations coming online also have less awareness on how to spot the imminent dangers.
"With the introduction of online classes to minors to mitigate Covid-19 effects on education, more and more children are having unlimited access to the Internet," Beatrice Mwema, the project manager Childline Kenya, says.
Mwema adds that very few parents are aware of the unsafeness of the online space for children, especially girls.
“There is high mobile penetration in the country and a number of parents are not discussing with their children the challenges they are experiencing online. It is high time we made online violence a comfortable topic of discussion in our homes," she says.
Since schools shifted to online learning, malicious hacker attacks have also been reported, targeting children with pornography and sexual harassment, with girls highly targeted.
Schools have reported intruders who hijack classes at all levels, including playgroups and nursery classes up to Class 8 and secondary school.
“Platforms that look innocent could lead to our children being harassed online even as they seek to have an education or get entertained,” says Raphael Kariuki, head of region at Terres des Hommes (a child lobby).
“This shows the need for measures to ensure safety online for our girls as well.”